Mon, Feb 28, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Ideological rift between US, Russia still lingers even now


During the Cold War, the ideological gulf between the US and Russia revolved around competing governments that split the world into communist and capitalist camps.

Today, as plainly revealed at a US-Russian summit on Thursday, nagging remnants of that gulf linger in the debate over how to define two, basic words: democracy and freedom.

The freedom and democracy that US President George W. Bush encouraged at his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin are broad ideals defined by his administration's zeal for spreading worldwide the US' views of government relations with religion, the press and human rights.

Putin, however, said democracy and freedom must be defined individually in the framework of every nation's history and needs.

Bush and Putin agreed not to let differences over definitions weaken their bilateral relationship, which they called strong and getting stronger. Deals signed at the summit will bring the two governments closer in the fight against terrorism, for example, and enhance their energy trade.

Yet the modern gulf could not be denied.

Before the summit started -- and while Putin was still en route to Bratislava -- Bush emphasized his views of freedom and democracy in a speech to thousands of Slovaks in a city square.

He named neither the Kremlin nor Russia, but Slovaks knew that he was talking about the Soviet Union's defeat when he praised Slovakia's victory over a tough communist regime 15 years ago.

"I've come here to thank you for your contribution to freedom's cause," he said.

Bush said "seeds of freedom" are now blowing around the world, and democracy was beginning to root in other former Soviet satellites such as Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. It was a theme similar to his second inauguration speech last month.

Bush said all nations should embrace "freedom of speech, religion and association."

Putin's public chance to explain Russia's position didn't come until several hours later, while he stood beside Bush at a post-summit news conference. But he made no apologies.

"Russia chose democracy 14 years ago of its own accord and under no external pressure," he said. "This choice is final and there is no way back."

Putin said he and Bush "discussed these issues at length, face to face, just the two of us". Russia, he explained, is "committed to the principles of democracy" that apply according to "our history and traditions."

Russia's press is free, political opponents can voice their opinions and a US-style "electoral college" system will be employed in upcoming regional elections, which have been targeted by the Kremlin's critics, Putin insisted.

Yet he also said his country's forms of freedom and democracy were rightly controlled by a government, which in turn was bowing to the will of Russians who are not -- in a Putin reference to the nation's oligarchs -- "the rich."

"I am absolutely confident democracy is not anarchy," Putin said. "It is not the possibility to do anything you want."

At the same conference, Bush explained his position but treaded carefully when speaking about Russia's definitions of the words he repeatedly uses. He said summit topics included the protection of minorities, allowing a political opposition, supporting press freedom and other democracy issues.

The touchy subject was tackled "in a constructive and friendly way," he said, adding that Putin "has made big steps."

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